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ARLINGTON, Va. — NATO’s spring offensive against the Taliban has begun in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said Thursday.

“Yes, NATO operations have begun,” Pace told Pentagon reporters during a roundtable with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Pace declined to offer details of the new fight against insurgents.

“I prefer not to discuss ongoing operations,” including the number of troops that are involved, Pace said.

However, he said, the operations in Afghanistan “will unfold very clearly here in the next couple of days.”

Gates said that he and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Wednesday to discuss “principally Afghanistan” and the need for additional troops and resources for that mission there.

Meanwhile, Gates reiterated his comments he made Wednesday, in which he linked the possible limiting of funds in Iraq to the rise in bloodshed.

“If we were to precipitously withdraw from Baghdad at this point, there would be a dramatic increase in sectarian violence," Gates said Thursday.

His comments were directed at the possibility Congress might try to limit U.S. military operations in Iraq by providing only targeted funding.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he intends to propose legislation that would limit spending for the war in Iraq in 2008 to just three missions: training and equipping Iraqi security forces, security for U.S. forces and personnel, and counterterrorism operations.

Gates added Thursday that he “continues to believe” that the Iraqis who are dying “are being killed by relatively small numbers of people … in an attempt to make the Baghdad security plan fail.”

Regarding the release of British navy personnel, Gates said, “I think it’s clear that the British sailors were well inside Iraqi waters when they were seized. He also said he has asked U.S. commanders to make sure U.S. Navy personnel in the region “make sure we are playing well within the base lines, just like the British were.”

The events surrounding the taking of the British personnel will not affect the five members of the Iranian Al Kutz forces that U.S. forces are still holding inside Iraq, Gates said.

“I think there’s no inclination right now to let them go,” Gates said of the Al Kutz forces.

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